Native American remedy could hold key to fighting smallpox

A Native American remedy thought to have been used to treat smallpox victims in the late 19th century was recently rediscovered and found to be effective in killing the poxvirus.

Smallpox has been eradicated, but possible treatments for the poxvirus are still sought after in case the virus is used in a bioterror attack or in case of an increased incidence of similar poxviruses like monkeypox, according to

Historical sources suggest that the Micmac Native Americans of Nova Scotia treated the disease in the late 1800s by using a botanical infusion derived from a species of insectivorous pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea.

A team of researchers led by Jeffrey Langland of Arizona State University in Tempe recently completed a series of in vitro experiments with the herbal extract and found that it inhibits the replication of the variola virus, which is the causative agent of the disease.

Although smallpox is no longer considered a health threat, there is still a possibility that rogue nations or terrorist groups could have acquired stocks of the virus following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had developed smallpox as a biowarfare agent. Currently, only the United States and Russia are known to continue to maintain a stockpile the live virus.

Smallpox vaccinations are still administered to researchers working with poxviruses and members of the military who could be exposed to the virus through biological warfare.

"There is much skepticism on herbal medicine, but what our results illustrate conclusively is that this herb is able to kill the virus and we can actually demonstrate how it kills the virus," Langland said, reports. "It takes this herb out of the realm of folklore, and into the area of true scientific evidence.

"With smallpox, it is obviously impossible to see if this herb is effective in the human body unless a bioterror release of the virus occurs. We are in the process of doing animal studies to confirm our results in at least this type of whole animal system."